Fly Me to the Gulf
How a Gang of Tennessee and Mississippi Entrepreneurs Is Bringing a Little Southern Hospitality (and Some Dignity) Back to Air Travel
“Has anyone called shotgun?”
This is not a normal thing to ask a commercial pilot. How would you even get close enough to make the request? Lowly passengers don’t talk to pilots. Pilots talk at us, from behind a locked door. And we surely never call shotgun. That’s the sort of behavior that gets people put on lists.
Southern Airways Express, however, is not a normal airline. So abnormal, sensible and human is the team behind the startup that they just might have saved air travel from the savage jaws of awfulness and made it fun again. Its model — short-haul flights of less than 10 passengers — avoids the Transportation Security Administration policies of treating all passengers like refugees; reduces check-in to a pleasant 20 minutes; makes actual airtime comfortable, even sociable; and has no baggage-claim system to send all your clothes to Anaheim for the weekend. It does this, generally, for less money than the major carriers.
So in its first summer — 2013 — the new carrier was a hit with the Southern beach crowd, which suddenly found itself liberated from the two six-hour road trips with excitable children. By the fall, however, vacation traffic had tapered off and the airline was scrambling for financing. The startup’s success had not gone unnoticed by the venture-capital crowd. The company was different, they said: A new restaurant was coming across their desks weekly, a new internet outfit almost daily, but Southern Airways was filling a void in the market. Which is not the sort of thing that happens very often.
There is a good reason for that. The general consensus among the major airlines was that the Southern Airways Express model was impossible. It defied long-held beliefs in the air-travel industry about economies of scale and - even worse - the hub-and-spoke system of the major carriers. More problematic was that the federal Department of Transportation initially deemed it illegal. After a close reading of the DOT’s 1,000-plus pages of regulations on the airline industry, Stan Little, 43, an aviation history buff and criminal lawyer in North Mississippi, thought that it was completely legal. Whether it was possible, though, was a different story.
Little, it turns out, has a lifelong history of prying into ideas that sound like folly. At 17, the Humboldt, Tenn., native talked his father into cosigning a loan to buy a local radio station, and he created the first all-talk-and-news station to serve rural West Tennessee. That early success has given him the air of a man who sees no good reason why life ought not be enjoyed. Along with a passion for aviation, he is an avid diver; he even moved to Hawaii for a time to practice law.
Eventually he settled in Hernando, Miss. In the fall of 2012, he and some friends were flying in his Cessna Golden Eagle to the Bahamas to scuba dive.
“I was sitting in the co-pilot seat, talking to Scott, who’d been my pilot for about two years,” Little says. “I asked him if he was available to take my sister some place the next weekend, and then asked about another friend the following week.”
Apparently, owning a plane is like a having a pickup truck. Everyone – friends, family, anyone with whom you’ve made extended eye contact – wants to borrow it. As long as they paid for the pilot and the fuel, Little was OK loaning it out.
Captain Scott Honnell joked, “Why don’t you just hire me full-time and sell seats as a charter?”
It was funny, but not absurd. It stuck.
Southern Airways Capt. C. Stufft, seen here with a style that hearkens back to the glory days of air travel.
After a day of diving, Little found himself in that perfect storm from which great ideas so often emerge: the odd cocktail, friends discussing an interesting concept, a pen and a cocktail napkin on which the first route map is drawn.
The more he thought about Honnell’s question, the less of a joke the idea became. Surely there were enough people in Memphis, Birmingham, New Orleans and Atlanta to fill nine seats on a couple of routes a day. And why not? The South is connected by a lot of long drives that make for short flights. But with TSA procedures and regulations, driving from Memphis to Atlanta door-to-door is actually slightly faster than flying with a major carrier. And once in the hands of the big three airlines, customer service is brutal. So bad that in 2011, Congress passed a Passenger Bill of Rights demanding, however toothlessly, that the airlines treat their customers as if they were free citizens.
When Little got back home, he started combing through the mountain of U.S. Department of Transportation regulations – most of which made entry into the industry nearly impossible without, in the words of Little, “$50 million and five years of paperwork.” But he noticed the same qualifiers at the start of hundreds of the most expensive regulations: “for airlines carrying more than 10 passengers,” “over 8,500 gross empty pounds” and “using TSA terminals.” And therein was the key: If you hauled fewer than 10 passengers, in a plane that weighed less than 8,500 pounds and did not fly into a TSA terminal, everything changed.
The Department of Transportation disagreed. Little recalls, “They said, ‘No, that’s not what the rules say. You can’t do this.’” He regrouped, read the regulations again, and returned to argue his case. “They listened to the argument, looked it up and said, more or less, ‘I’ll be damned, that is what it says.’”
The size of the planes and the short-haul routes got the airline out from the most expensive carrier regulations except safety: “Every 100 hours we basically take the aircraft apart, service it and put it back together. Every 100 hours.”
Little and Honnell then flew to Chicago to find a few planes to lease. The owners of Executive Express Aviation were intrigued by the model and a partnership was formed wherein Southern flew planes under Executive Express’ charter certificate.
Setting up the airline was one thing, but then came the actual running of it. While studying for the bar exam in Hawaii, Little had worked as a manager at Orbitz Worldwide’s cheaptickets.com site and already had a good idea how the airlines’ ticketing systems worked. Logistics, however, were proving difficult. How do you get an airplane to Birmingham for a lunch flight, the other one over to New Orleans and still have one ready to go in Memphis for a Thursday-afternoon flight to the beach? He went through reams of note paper and dozens of dry-erase markers before finally sending his assistant out for three sets of dominoes. Writing the routes on the back of the dominoes with a sharpie, Little arranged the flights on a conference table. Suddenly he could see the way it would all work, laid out in front of him.
It was time to raise some capital. Privately, a handful of investors put up about $750,000 in seed money to buy things like specialized logistics software.
Little still has the dominoes.
An airline serving a “beach condo” niche can’t just start anytime of the year. By the first week of June 2013, the planes were on standby, as were the pilots.
Southern Airways Express had received a frenzy of local press in Memphis, and had ads out for flights all summer. At the call center, the phones were ringing off the hook to buy tickets that the fledgling airline could not — at that juncture — legally sell. The Department of Transportation had agreed that what Southern was doing was legal, but as of two days before the first scheduled flight, the DOT had not officially cleared the airline to start operating. So all those people calling in were put on a rapidly swelling wait list as time ticked away. On Tuesday, June 4, 4:55 p.m. Eastern time, the phone rang with the authorization number. At 4:56, Stan was on the phone with the call center with the order to start filling seats, and the website went live.
“Everyone worked through the night,” he says. “The first flight took off 36 hours later. Sold out.”
The timing, after such a close call, Little says, was almost “divine.” Almost immediately following the launch, Delta Air Lines began slashing routes from the Memphis airport. The press and social media were indignant, a Facebook page called “Delta Does Memphis” slammed the airline with a wall of complaints as Southern Airways’ page went from zero to 10,000 fans in a couple of weeks.
“On Monday, Delta would announce that they were dropping a flight, and on Tuesday, Southern would pick the same route up,” Little says. “Back and forth like that for a month.”
In the first three months, Southern Airways moved some 3,000 passengers with an 88 percent “load factor” — airline parlance for the percentage of available seats that are filled. By October, the summer boom was over and the airline knew it needed to establish business routes between major Southern cities if it was going to stay in the game.
Keith Sisson, Southern’s chief operating officer, oversees day-to-day operations from headquarters in downtown Memphis. The airline originally used a small private airfield, but has since moved to Memphis International Airport’s Private Signature Terminal — a private port owned by MIA but available only to private smaller planes and not subject to cumbersome TSA regulations. There, the lines are rarely three deep on a bad day and there is no uniformed stranger waiting to feel you up. All of Southern’s terminals are private airfields (most of which are nowhere near major airports) for the simple reason that they can’t legally use major TSA terminals. The bottom line is that a flight to Destin will literally land you on the beach. Which is both an obstacle and part of the charm.
“We’re having to re-brand the airports, too,” Sisson says. “Most people, unless they own a plane or fly charters, have never heard of these ports.” And while the facilities are small, they are cleaner, nicer and more pleasant that most major airports in the U.S.
“Fly into a major airport and you are still an hour away from where you want to be,” says Sisson. “We can put you down in Buckhead, Destin or Gulf Shores, Ala. Airports the big carriers can’t use. They could fly you nonstop from Birmingham to New Orleans, but they won’t: The hub-and-spoke system is too entrenched.”
In short, these so-called General Aviation Ports have traditionally been for the very rich, and the very rich can generally buy their way out of unpleasantness. Which is why most people resent them.
Now, thanks to Southern Airways, for a few hundred dollars, people can resent you, too.
Sisson admits that for the first year, Southern was run like a mom-and-pop corner store: Because the entire model was largely experimental, they were free to try out routes quickly to gauge demand. Since then, they have grown in number of routes and sophistication. By the kickoff to their second summer season, the company had acquired Executive Aviation and a subsidiary and was about to open its Memphis-to-Atlanta route. Delta had been moving some 40,000 passengers between the two cities per month. Introducing a business route during the vacation season was a piece of clever grassroots marketing.
“We’re using the flights to the beach to advertise the business flights,” Sisson says. “It’s just a matter of getting the word out.”
I was waiting on the inaugural flight to Atlanta as an earlier flight arrived looking like something out of “Casablanca”: Passengers walked away, chatting with each other and, with no baggage-claim system to lose their bags, headed to their cars. Sisson, a native of Biloxi, was wearing a seersucker suit and the airline’s signature blue suede shoes. When I asked him what, exactly, Southern Airways is selling, he smiled. It was what he’d been wanting me to ask.
“We’re everything the legacy carriers aren’t!” he said. “No baggage fees, no parking fees. We can get you to around the South in less time, and usually for less money than the big carriers. To be clear, a Cessna can’t outpace a commercial airliner; your airtime is longer with Southern. But if you are comfortable, who cares? Airtime isn’t what people hate about flying. We just cut out the hassle of the big TSA hub on either end.”
Which is true. What we hate about flying is the parade of intrusive insults, degrading inconveniences and penny-ante fees that make a $350 ticket look an awful lot like $425 before you’ve landed. The big three took in $3.3 billion in baggage fees last year, so there is very little hope they’ll cut them anytime soon.
“Look, we aren’t geniuses here,” Sisson said. “We just did it the way that we’d like to see it done. It doesn’t even cost anymore to do it right; it’s just a little more trouble. You actually have to care.”
Later, Captain Scott Honnoll explained the safety procedures to us before we boarded. He wore the Southern uniform, which hearkens back to the glory days of Pan Am in the ’60s – plus the blue suede shoes. The mere fact that you can look the pilot in the eye to ask about protocol, the weather or even to call shotgun – changes the flying experience in a way that is hard to explain but easy to grasp when it happens. Make no mistake, the captain is in charge – and you want it that way – but the passenger has just been upgraded from cargo to guest.
Small planes, it must be pointed out, ride differently. After take off you feel the air around you more than on a commercial behemoth, but this is fleeting. At 6,000 feet the rising thermals give way to what Honnell calls “the velvet road” where the ride is smooth and quiet. We continue to climb to about 9,000 feet. Considerably lower than the 30,000 of a big jetliner.
Honnell corrects me when I describe the experience as informal. It’s not. There is about an hour’s work of paperwork for every three of airtime. The seven pilots are constrained by maximum daily hours flying like every other airline. The TSA regulations aren’t disregarded: They are just taken care of “behind the curtain.” All the boxes are checked. So what would he call it? Honnell thinks for a moment.
“The experience is laid back,” he says.
It would be hard to come up with a way to travel that is at once more luxurious and simple. The seats on the Cessna Caravan aren’t what you’d call huge, but they are comfortable, well-spaced and everyone gets a window and an aisle. There is no food service, but there is no flight longer than two hours, either. You can bring a snack or a bottle of wine if you are so inclined. There is no in-flight entertainment, but there doesn’t need to be, because any passenger likely to be flying anywhere these days already has a smartphone or tablet. The airline does offer big comfy headphones, which Sisson points out are rarely used. Flying with eight other passengers, as opposed to crammed in with hundreds, creates a sociable situation.
Stan Little, Keith Sisson and Scott Honnell, independently of each other, all told me the same story. All three are proud of what they’ve done and all three wanted me to know something about the Southern flights. It doesn’t happen all the time, each admitted, but often enough to call it somewhat regular: Passengers — strangers — meet on a flight to the beach. A bottle of wine is opened and shared. On touchdown the passengers will head out to dinner together. They are, after all, on vacation.
By the late afternoon, we had touched down back in Memphis. Captain Honnell asks me what I think about the whole experience. Comfortable, convenient, cost-effective: Yes, of course, all of that, but that’s not the nut of it. What has me fascinated is not even the model itself, inspired as it is. It is the execution. The idea that there just may be a professional application to that Golden Rule business your mother drummed into your head about treating other the way you want to be treated.
That, and how refreshing it is to know that the matrix reports churned out by $600-per-hour consultants have not completely displaced common sense.